Easter in Advent and Christmas in Lent
(By the Revd. Gordon Maitland, PBSC National Chairman)
The Church’s calendar – the yearly cycle of feasts, festivals and fasts – has a long and complicated history. The calendar used by Christians actually has its origin in the Jewish calendar regulated by Mosaic Law. In that calendar were prescribed the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles, etc. Christians developed an ecclesiastical calendar in which the arrangement of Saints’ days and other Feasts of our Lord have a subtle relationship with one another. These interdependent relationships only become apparent over a long period of time spent actually living and ordering one’s life around the ecclesiastical calendar. One of these subtle relationships is demonstrated in the fact that the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle falls in Advent and the Feast of the Annunciation usually falls in Lent.
The feast of St. Thomas always occurs in Advent because his day in the traditional Church calendar is the 21st of December, just before Christmas. On the feast of St. Thomas the Gospel is from the twentieth chapter of John and is, of course, the appearance of the risen Christ to doubting Thomas. The collect for this day also makes reference to the resurrection:
Almighty and everliving God, who for the more confirmation of the faith didst suffer thy holy Apostle Thomas to be doubtful in thy Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly, and without all doubt, to believe in thy Son Jesus Christ, that our faith in thy sight may never be reproved. Hear us, O Lord, through the same Jesus Christ, to whom, with thee and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, now and for evermore. Amen.
Thus, one could say that we have a bit of Easter in the midst of Advent when we observe St. Thomas’ Day.
The Feast of the Annunciation falls on the 25th of March. It usually occurs in Lent, but if Easter is early the Annunciation might occur in Holy Week or even Easter Week, in which case it is transferred to the week after Low Sunday. The Gospel for the Annunciation is from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel and is about the appearance of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will conceive in her womb and give birth to the Saviour of the World (March 25th to December 25th is exactly 9 months). The Annunciation is generally regarded as a Christmas theme and this gospel scene is almost always a part of Sunday School Christmas pageants. The collect for this day is significant insofar as it refers to the incarnation in relation to Christ’s death and Resurrection:
We beseech thee, O Lord, pour thy grace into our hearts; that, as we have known the incarnation of thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by his cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Therefore, we can say that a hint of Christmas in the midst of Lent is provided when we observe the Feast of the Annunciation.
The doctrines of the incarnation (that the Son of God took human nature upon himself in the womb of the Virgin Mary) and the atonement (that the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross reconciles us to God the Father) can never be separated from one another. If the Son of God became incarnate but did not offer himself for the sins of the world nothing would have been done to save us. If the person who was crucified was not the Son of God, then his death was not a saving event but the unfortunate end of a well-meaning prophet. We can now begin to appreciate the subtle but significant role the Feast of St. Thomas and the Feast of the Annunciation play in the overall scheme of the Church Year. Just before Christmas we are reminded of the atonement, death and resurrection of Christ, on St. Thomas’ Day (please note that the death of Jesus is implied in the Gospel from John on this day because Jesus shows Thomas the wounds in his hands and side). Likewise, as Holy Week and Easter approach, we are reminded of the incarnation with the Feast of the Annunciation in Lent. Incarnation and atonement are never far apart.
It should therefore be apparent why removing St. Thomas’ Day from Advent and moving it (as the BAS and the modern Roman Catholic lectionary do) to July 3, in the middle of Ordinary Time or Trinitytide, is not a neutral change but rather completely destroys the balance the old calendar had in regards to incarnation and atonement. Thus, while the BAS retains the Annunciation on March 25, in Advent there is no longer a hint of the death and resurrection of Christ which was provided by St. Thomas’ Feast. It is much to be regretted that for many Canadian Anglicans there is no longer Easter in Advent.
(From the PBSC Newsletter, Advent 2013)